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Course Times & Enrolment

Thursdays from 26th September 2024 (Code PH078-110) Add to Basket Thursdays from
26th September 2024 6:30pm - 8:20pm • (10 classes)
Holyrood Campus • Tutor: Steven Martz BA MTh PhD
£195.00 Concessions and discounts

Course Summary

This course will examine key features of existentialist philosophy - despair, alienation, religion, identity, freedom, and selfhood – through a chronological study of central thinkers in the field. Students will gain an appreciation and understanding of how existentialist thought developed, the problems to which it is responding, and the ability to critically reflect on how existentialism remains relevant to contemporary concerns.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No previous knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is best viewed as a reaction against historical events and cultural shifts. This class will examine the broad themes of existentialist philosophy in relation to its historical development and how it differs from traditional philosophy, establishing the foundation for the remainder of the course.

2. Kierkegaard. 

We will examine Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of despair, arguably his most important contribution to the future development of existentialism. Themes of selfhood, identity and the self’s relation to God will be discussed, as they form the central components of Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of despair.

3. Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s thought is a watershed in Western philosophy and for existentialism in particular. We will examine his striking and unsettling claims regarding the death of God, the state of society, and the alienation of the self. Further, we will discuss whether he provides a pessimistic or optimistic future for human identity in light of his devastating critiques.

4. Heidegger. 

This class will focus on the work of Martin Heidegger – a brilliant and controversial figure. We will first explore Heidegger’s critique of the history of Western philosophy which he describes as a forgetfulness and objectification of being. Against this, Heidegger proposes his most famous concept, DaseinDasein provides the means for Heidegger to claim that, unlike the view found in traditional philosophy, there is no secret or hidden or deeper reality (metaphysics) behind the world. We shall discuss just how revolutionary this view is with particular focus on his notion of ‘being-towards-death’.

5. Sartre.

In Sartre one witnesses the coming together of themes found in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger as a result of the experiences of Nazism and the Second World War. This class will focus on Sartre’s famous essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ – his impassioned defence of existentialism against charges of hopelessness and nihilism.

6. Camus.

An important contributor to existentialism and a significant interlocutor of Sartre’s Camus’ philosophy heightens the notion of absurdity at the centre of human existence. Camus challenges our notions of hope while also tackling the philosophical issue of suicide.

7. DeBeauvoir.

A towering figure of 20th thought, DeBeauvoir extends Camus’ view of the absurd while also offering a poignant critique of Sartre and other existentialists. She tackles the important notion of human freedom and the ethical implications of the Other.

8. Arendt. 

A fascinating figure and a towering intellectual, Arendt is well-known for many things - her coining of the term 'banality of evil', her association with Heidegger as well as her life-long political activism. Her philosophy (although she preferred to be known as a political theorist) has had an important impact on 20th century thought and beyond. We will explore her diagnosis of the human condition and assess its relevance.

9. Existentialism and Literature. 

Existentialism was more than just a philosophical movement; it was deeply cultural too. It influenced the literature, cinema, theatre, architecture and the plastic and visual arts of the 20th century. In this week we will read Kafka’s seminal work ‘Metamorphosis’ exploring the themes of existential philosophy which show up in his work.

10. Existentialism and Film.

The impact of existential philosophy on film in the mid-twentieth century cannot be overstated. In our final class we will discuss a film that exemplifies existentialist themes while also asking whether film can be considered as an existentialist text, challenging our notion of what constitutes philosophy.

Teaching method(s)

Each class will consist of a lecture, examination and critical evaluation of a key text (normally primary source), and discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Identify the key features of existentialist philosophy;

  • Demonstrate an awareness of the development of existential thought;

  • Understand the historical and cultural significance of existentialism;

  • Evaluate the relevance of existentialist philosophy to the problems facing the contemporary world.


Core Readings


  • Kaufmann, Walter. ed., 1988. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. London: Penguin.

Excerpts from key readings (not included in the above text) will be distributed in class for the following week


Class Handouts

Lecture summaries and excerpts of key texts will be made available.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.